The Olsen Girls

The Olsen Girls

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

The Olsen Girls

Light tomorrow with today.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My little sister turned fifty today—the one I carried around when she was a one-year-old and I was two and a half. I told everyone, “My baby. This is my baby.”

She had a naturally curly, blonde ponytail and big blue eyes. “Oh, she looks like a princess,” strangers would exclaim. My brown eyes downcast, I nodded, brown hair bobbing.

Always calm and observant, she would sit in the middle of the living room, serene and quiet as I ran around the room, a four-and-a-half-year-old doing cartwheels, turning somersaults, singing show tunes, kicking up my heels— anything to get attention and applause. At three years old, she already knew she was loved. She was enough and didn’t have to work for it.

She had a pretty singing voice, though she didn’t think so. I taught her songs so we could sing harmony. We put on shows in the garage, big productions with makeup and costumes gleaned from my mother’s cast-offs. In the backyard we would perform acrobatic feats of wonder using the garden hose and creating a circus for all the neighborhood kids. We were a team—we were sisters.

We discovered books together and became bookworms, each checking out fourteen books a week from the local library, and reading all twenty-eight before they were returned and exchanged for a new tower of fourteen each. We worked through Mary Poppins, Little Women, Jack London and all the Oz books, the Shoes books (Ballet Shoes, Skating Shoes, etc.), and A Wrinkle in Time. We loved fantasy and stories about girls who were heroes.

Neither one of us was popular in high school; we were both smart and fell into the geeks and hippies segment of the teenage caste system. Bored with normal activities, we opened our own fashion boutique at fifteen and thirteen, designed and sewed all our own clothes, and with the help of our friends we filled a whole store with our creations. We even made costumes for rock groups.

College for me, Europe for her, then we came together again in the early seventies to open a bikini shop in Maui. We could do anything—we were sisters and a team.

Relationships and marriages followed, years of working in the theater for me, years of working in publishing for her. We were always connected, always close.

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, and she dropped everything to come and be with me. She cooked hundreds of meals and froze them, cleaned our house top to bottom, and went with me to scary chemotherapy treatments. At forty-eight years old, I finally learned what she had always known—I was loved; I was enough; I didn’t have to work for it.

I’m fine now, and she and I talk every week from 3,000 miles away. We’re a deeply connected team, and our husbands joke about how lucky they are to have married the Olsen Sisters.

How could she be fifty? How could I be almost fifty-two? Well, that’s the magic. She is really still my baby, and we’re still singing songs together, putting on puppet shows in the garage, reading books and now traveling the world. Every time I think of her, whether we are together or apart, we are all these things. She has been there with me, through all of it. We know all the secrets . . . we were there. Together.

I threw a big party for her fiftieth birthday. Everyone was asked to bring a skit or poem or song. We learned the song “Sisters” from White Christmas and performed it at the party; at the end, the crowd applauded and someone yelled, “Do it again. We want to hear it again!” So we did. And I’m sure we’ll do it again and again over the next fifty years. The Olsen Girls never quit. We’re a team, forever and ever. We’re survivors. We’re sisters.

Mary Olsen Kelly

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